I met Dan Johnson at the University of Illinois where we both received our Masters’ degrees in TESL. After graduation, I went to Missouri and Dan went to Saudi Arabia. Needless to say, we’ve had some different post-grad experiences. I got in touch with him to hear about his life and work in the Middle East.
Unlike my previous interviews, which were in person, my interview with Dan was done over email. It starts off with a few general questions about teaching English and then gets into his experiences in Saudi Arabia later. You’ll find Dan to be an interesting, eloquent answerer of questions. I’m very appreciative of the time and effort he put into these answers and I think you will be too. Enjoy.
Q: Describe how you first got into teaching English. What were your motivations?
A: Well, my first experience teaching English was just sort of serendipitous. I had an opportunity to teach for a year at a university in France more or less fall into my lap at the end of my senior year of college, so I thought, “Hey, this would be cool!” and so off I went. I had no background in either English or education, so to be honest I was totally unprepared for what I was doing. So in short, I’d say that teaching English just kind of happened to me.
Q: Which of the four skills (reading, writing, listening, speaking) do you enjoy teaching the most and why?
A: I think reading is my favorite. Writing reading questions is one of my favorite parts of preparing for a lesson. There’s room for vocabulary and reading comprehension on a lot of different levels, from sentence-level on up. Well-chosen readings can also serve as the basis for really interesting class discussions. That tends to be the case more at upper levels than at lower levels, but I think that you can stimulate good discussions even at lower levels if it’s scaffolded properly.
Q: Where did you work in Saudi Arabia? What were some of the challenges at your job and what were some of the things that you enjoyed about it?
A: I worked last year at the Hail College of Technology in Hail, Saudi Arabia. The college is a part of the Technical and Vocational Training Corporation, which despite its name is the national public technical/vocational college system in Saudi Arabia. My students were those who have completed the equivalent of an associate’s degree.
One of the big challenges of my job was the fact that it was a very intensive program – the semesters were twenty-one weeks long and we were in class for about five hours a day. I spent two-thirds of that time daily with the same students, so while it was a lot of face time, it also took some planning to try to maintain motivation and engagement. Our students were very much part of a culture where rules are fairly negotiable, so trying to get them to adhere to our fairly strict tardiness and attendance policy was also a challenge. Keeping them on task was also an ongoing battle.
However, the students also provided some of the positive aspects of the job as well. They were very enthusiastic participators such that the problem is regulating participation rather than encouraging them to participate at all. Their curiosity was also a great asset in class – they’ve got a lot of questions about a lot of things, especially what life is like outside of Saudi Arabia. Outside of class, they were extremely hospitable and helpful, which was a great asset in getting used to living in Saudi Arabia.
Q: How do students in Saudi Arabia commonly perceive studying English? What is the motivation? Jobs, a test?
A: A lot of jobs in Saudi Arabia require a certain level of competence in English, although sometimes if you have personal connections those can be circumvented. I think, though, that the motivation is rather similar to how it is in a lot of countries: students know that English will help them to get ahead in their careers, but at least in Hail, there aren’t a lot of opportunities to study or use it. So that creates the fairly common mentality of “I want to learn and practice English, but I don’t know how.” There is a national English test here called the STEP, but I’m not sure how much effect it has on student admissions and job placement, although it seems to be somewhat important. My impression, though, is that motivation in Saudi Arabia to learn English is somewhat vague: people know that they need it, but they might not have a concrete reason, such as needing to study for the TOEFL. That’s different from the students that I’ve taught in the past, because most students in American university IEPs have the very specific goal of attaining a proficiency level high enough to permit study in an academic program in a university.
Q: Most people in the U.S. consider Saudi Arabia to be a very different country. What is one thing that was surprisingly easy for you to get used to, and what is one thing that was surprisingly difficult to adjust to?
A: It was surprisingly easy to get used to not interacting with women. (I was there for six and a half months and I had precisely three interactions with women there, all of which were very brief.) I lived in a particularly conservative corner of Saudi Arabia, and so the only women who didn’t wear a niqab (a veil that covers all but their eyes) are the non-Saudis. So even the habits of dress made it clear (in case you didn’t already know before you came to Saudi Arabia) that you just don’t talk to women unless they talk to you first. It wasn’t easy to get over being in close proximity to them (such as at the grocery store) because I was worried about accidentally bumping into them and somehow getting myself thrown in jail or something (which, to be clear, is paranoid nonsense), but I think I just took the fact that I don’t talk to them in stride.
I think the hardest thing to get used to was having so few options for things to do. Saudi Arabia lacks some of the traditional social spaces that you’d find in most Western countries, like bars and movie theaters. And other places like malls and restaurants have restrictions or different sections to separate unmarried men from women and families. One of my students complained to me several weeks ago that “All the fun places here in Hail are just for women.” I think this disrupts the conventional wisdom that everything in Saudi Arabia is for the men – if you’re a young, unmarried Saudi guy, your options for things to do outside of your house or istiraha (a living room-ish area for entertaining and hosting guests, which is sometimes separate from the house and sometimes not) are really pretty limited. This also applies to expats living in Saudi Arabia. So if you combine the lack of familiar public spaces with restrictions on where you can go, you end up with very few entertainment options. Ultimately, what I came to realize is that if you know people and they invite you to hang out with them, you’ll do all right, but otherwise you have to be okay with spending a lot of time by yourself (or live in a place where you’re close to lots of other people like you, such as a compound, but I didn’t).
Q: Like most ESL teachers, you’re a linguaphile and speak several languages. How has your language ability helped you in your profession, either inside or outside the classroom?
A: I think both my French and my Arabic helped me to be more comfortable with moving abroad (to France and Saudi Arabia). Although at both of the times when I moved I didn’t feel that I was highly proficient in the language, I certainly had more than enough to be able to get around. That was especially true in Saudi Arabia – my Arabic is still far from where I’d like it to be, but generally speaking I was able to make myself understood. If I didn’t speak any Arabic, I think I would have been much more hesitant to go to Saudi Arabia.
Inside the classroom I think it can be a huge asset. It can make teaching vocabulary easier because you can confirm with the students at the end of an explanation what word is a good equivalent in their language. It can also be really helpful to have an idea of how grammar and syntax work in their language because it makes sense of what might otherwise seem to be bizarre errors. There was one particular time in Saudi Arabia when I briefly had to talk about the passive and in two minutes of explanation in Arabic I did what fifteen minutes in English couldn’t have.
In addition to the usefulness of the L1 in the classroom, I think it’s crucial for language teachers to constantly bear in mind how hard learning a language is. It’s easy to fall into the trap of “Oh, this isn’t this hard, why are you struggling so much with this?” but continuing the language-learning process yourself is a great antidote for that. I think that our students, who are going through that process, have a lot of respect for language abilities, and so I think that gives a lot of credibility to me as a teacher to be able to say, “Look, I’ve been where you are and here’s what I think is best for you because it worked for me.” Even though it might be frustrating for us as teachers, sometimes personal testimonial is more powerful than research or expert opinions.
Q: What is a tool that you have been using recently that you find really helps teaching English?
A: This is the perfect place to mention something I’ve been meaning to tell people for a while. The most useful tool I brought with me to Saudi Arabia was not a book. It was a Koosh ball. Seriously. I used it a lot for turn-taking activities in my listening-speaking class, and the students loved it. (Some of them were oddly fascinated with it, to the point that they sometimes just wanted to hold it while we were in class, but I digress…) Using the ball also includes a fun little game-like element when they get to choose who the next speaker is. Who doesn’t like throwing and catching a ball, especially when you can cause brief discomfort to your classmates by forcing them to speak?
The other thing that I’ve come around to is what I’ve taken to calling a “pick ‘em” slide. That’s not very descriptive, but it’s what I call it. Anyway, it’s a PowerPoint slide where they have two or three columns of words that they can combine into a question for a classmate to answer. It’s a nice way of getting them to practice a target structure without just giving them questions to ask – they get the fun (and work) of putting it together and choosing who to ask, and I think that helps to make it a bit more engaging. So for example, I have one that I use for the simple present where they have to choose When or What time, a verb/verb phrase (eat lunch, play soccer, go to class), and a time (on Saturdays, every day, in the morning). There are a lot of possibilities, including some silly ones if they’re so inclined. There’s a lot of replay value and they seem to enjoy it. And of course, they use the Koosh ball.
Q: What should people definitely do if they visit Saudi Arabia?
A: It’s funny…for how many times I’ve asked this in class, I’m not sure how good of an answer I have.
I would suggest visiting a mall. I know that sounds weird and kind of lame, but I think it will actually give you an interesting view into some of the contradictions of Saudi society. On one hand, at least here in Hail, as I’ve mentioned, women are typically very covered up. But if you go to the trendiest mall here, a good half of the shops are either dedicated entirely to women’s clothes or to make-up. It’s interesting people-watching too.
If you know anyone in Saudi Arabia, see if you can get yourself invited over for dinner or to hang out. That will give you exposure to the contours of hospitality here. There will be dates and tea and coffee, and then if there’s dinner, it’s very like to be kebsa (apparently that’s the dish par excellence for guests). For extra authenticity, you can eat with your hand (yes, only one: the right one). Knowing people is also crucial for finding things to do and other people to socialize with.
If you’re adventurous, you might also go to the desert (with someone, or course). This is something my students do quite regularly, especially in the winter when it’s not horrifyingly hot. Popular activities include camping and driving. The driving may be as adventurous as drifting or it may just be driving around, but it’s off-roading with a rather Saudi flavor. I didn’t get to go camping myself, although I suspect that it’s not too different from camping in other places.